‘Western Disturbances Run Riot with Kashmir’

Predicting a serious crisis in the near future, VC IUST, Prof Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, an earth scientist, tells Humaira Nabi that a huge surge in average temperature is vanishing glaciers as Kashmir is emerging as a crucible for the climatic change, for none of its own faults

KASHMIR LIFE (KL): In all these years, how far have the boundaries of Earth Science transcended?

PROF SHAKIL A RAMSHOO (SAR): Traditionally, the subject of Earth Sciences was restricted to geography and geology, but now with the advancement in the field of science and technology, it now involves space-based earth observation, deep earth, oceanic and atmospheric studies. The significant developments and proliferation of space technology and geoinformation technology have particularly boosted remote sensing and Geographic Information System (GIS), a new branch of earth science with applications in almost every sphere of human activity.

KL: Tell us about your academic journey.

SAR: I have completed my early education at a local school in Bijbehara (Anantnag). After completing my secondary education, I went to Ranchi, Jharkhand where I majored in Forest Hydrology and Watershed Management. In 1995, I got an opportunity to study for my master’s in Space Technology and GIS at the Asian Institute of Technology, Bangkok Thailand. Later,  I did my PhD in Water Resource Engineering at the University of Tokyo, Japan

Then, I worked for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) earlier known as the National Space Development Agency of Japan, for four years. For a short period, I worked at the Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI), New Delhi. In 2004, I joined the University of Kashmir’s Department of Earth Sciences as Associate Professor. I headed several Departments and was also Dean for Research at the University of Kashmir till 2021. Then I moved to the Islamic University of Kashmir, Awantipora as the Vice Chancellor.

KL: What was your PhD research all about and what were the major takeaways?

SAR: My research focus during my doctorate at the University of Tokyo was on the use of microwave remote sensing for determining soil moisture at the basin scale and developed hydrological and climate change applications. I used Polarimetric (PolSAR) interferometric (InSAR) for assessing soil moisture under varied field conditions. Using remotely sensed soil moisture, I developed an approach for better characterization and quantification of the hydrological processes using distributed hydrological model.

KL: How has your doctoral research and subsequent work informed planning and development?

SAR: Having expertise in space technology, I capitalized on the use of remote sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to develop glacier and hydrology applications in the mountainous and inaccessible Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh Himalaya. With more than 15000 glaciers found in the region, the application of space-based observation expedited the generation of vital knowledge about their current status, dynamics and future projections. Kashmir is among the few regions in South Asia with high per capita water availability with glaciers being the important source of fresh water. The research of these glaciers under climate change scenarios is far-reaching not only for our region but for the entire Indus basin as the water emanating from this region are shared with the neighbouring countries who have a significant dependence on these waters for meeting their water requirements.

The unprecedented crisis brought by climate change across the globe has significantly impacted the glaciers in our region. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its  fourth assessment report in 2007 said, “Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, there is a likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035.” Taking timely cognisance of the issue, the Government of India took several initiatives and implemented an action plan for addressing climate change issues by constituting eight national missions on climate change, among which two were dedicated to the Himalayas.

On the basis of my contribution to cryospheric studies, I was approached by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2012 and was awarded a grant of Rs 20 crore to study the impact of climate change on western Himalayan glaciers.

In 2013, I successfully established India’s first National Ice-core Laboratory at the University of Kashmir for reconstructing the paleoclimate of the region from ice cores. I along with my team started various glacial, hydrological and climatological studies in the entire upper Indus basin comprising Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. Recognising our excellent work, the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India granted us a research funding ofRs 10 crores in 2019 for the establishment of the Centre of Excellence for Glacial Studies in the Western Himalaya, which is one of the two research centres established in the country.

KL: What were the major outcomes of your research?

SAR: While studying the past and current health and dynamics of glaciers using satellite data and extensive field investigations, we determined the glacier recession, shrinkage and thickness changes of all the glaciers in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh which stands published in high impact factor international journals. We have found that with each passing year, there is an average annual glacier retreat of about 18 meters, however, the rate varies from one mountain range to another with the Kashmir valley glaciers (Both in Greater Himalaya and Pir Panjal) showing the highest retreat and thickness changes and the Karakoram glaciers showing the lowest retreat and thickness change. The Kolhai glacier, which is an important source of water for Jhelum and hence the source of drinking water and irrigation in Kashmir, has shown an average annual retreat of about 20 meters. By the end of this century, we have estimated that the glaciers in Kashmir would shrink by about 60-75 per cent of the total glacier cover under various climate change scenarios.

KL: So, what are the significant impacts of climate change in Jammu and Kashmir?

SAR: Though Jammu and Kashmir is one of the least industrialized regions in the world but unfortunately, we are facing the brunt of climate change and the situation seems to be worsening. The average temperature increase in Jammu and Kashmir is more than the global average and is projected to rise significantly in future by the end of the century. Jammu and Kashmir has surpassed the world average in temperature rise against the global increase of 0.8 degrees Celsius, the region has recorded an average 1.3-degree Celsius rise in temperature in the last 100 years, which is the single most important reason responsible for the observed recession of glaciers.

As world leaders negotiate over various action plans to restrict the average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius by the end of this century; we, at the same time, predict about 3.5-degree Celsius rise in the temperature of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh during the same time.  While our region produces significantly less amount of greenhouse gases emissions due to less industrialization but climate change is a global phenomenon, we observe a high concentration of greenhouse gases and pollutants due to their transport to this region via westerly air masses. The western disturbances originating in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean region traverse through most industrialized regions of the world including Europe and hence carry a large amount of greenhouse gases before arriving in our region. The climate change impacts are a serious concern for this region as it is going to impact almost every resource, increase the climate extremes including flooding and is likely to adversely various livelihoods.

KL: What can be done to slacken the rate of climate change?

SAR: Climate change is a global phenomenon. The actions primarily have to be global, where nation heads and policymakers negotiate and find ways to deal with the issue.  India’s recent aim for net zero carbon emissions by 2070 as stated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the COP26 summit is a very important step. It is a bold commitment made by India to the international community to phase out the use of coal for energy generation and replace it with renewable energy. The commitments by China, India, the US and some other developed and developing economies, if strictly implemented, can make a difference and mitigate some of the adverse climate change impacts.  However, the significance of efforts at the national and local levels cannot be ignored.  Afforestation, climate-smart mass transit system transport and the use of sustainable renewable energy resources can actually prove to be game changers.

KL: Since you are heading a major university in the region and hence have the authority of intervening with academic policy making. I would like to know your views on the possible opportunities for our talented research minds after they are done with their doctoral research.

SAR: There is no doubt that we inherit world-sufficient minds. However, because of the lack of infrastructure and inadequate career opportunities, we are witnessing a brain drain from our region.  A number of our young scientists and researchers are currently working in world-class labs in different fields across the globe. All academic administrators and policymakers must take note of this and try to formulate policies and schemes to convert this brain drain into brain gain so that society at large gets benefits from its world-class expertise and exposure by using these bright minds to address some of our societal problems.

Many other countries including China had faced a similar brain drain in the past, where their efficient minds were contributing to the growth and development of North America or Europe.  But they understood the problem early and put policy mechanisms in place to reverse the process. Similar types of schemes such as Ramanujan, Ramalingswami and Welcome Trust fellowships were recently put in place by the Government of India to attract brilliant scientists and engineers who want to return to India from abroad. However, when they come back to India and continue their research in Indian universities and research institutes here, they face a lot of uncertainty at the end of the fellowship after five years. After completing their fellowships here, they don’t have any option but to go back or are forced to take up small jobs.

The University of Kashmir established the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research and Innovations (CIRI) with the objective to attract talented and well-trained overseas scientists through prestigious fellowships and an offer of permanent absorption as Assistant Professors after completion of the Fellowship. We received a number of applications from Kashmiri scientists doing post-doc abroad. After doing some internal evaluation, we selected a few of them and they are doing very well.

Similarly, at the Islamic University of Science and technology, we had a number of aspirants who wanted to join us as Ramanujan, and Ramalingswami fellows. We are offering even a better option for the talented scientists who want to return home from abroad with a guarantee of permanent absorption as Assistant Professors at the university. So, I think every university should come up with such guaranteed schemes so that we are able to attract and retain our best talent here.

Additionally, we have lots of PhD students coming out of our own universities in the region. The New Education Policy (NEP)-2020 will hopefully prove to be a very good opportunity for these PhD holders particularly those who have done quality work during their PhD. Under the policy, at least one college in each district will be converted into an autonomous institution and then into University. I think in the next five years there has to be a road map for absorbing these efficient minds at these new universities.

There is a lot of competition among academic institutes in the world. With even more than 950 universities in India alone making it to the top 100 is quite difficult unless we have the best of minds and talent at the helm of affairs. None of the Indian universities figures among the top 250 institutes/universities in the world. It is very important for every institute to not only survive but to excel in order to attract the best students and funding.

KL: There is a likelihood that scientists at different universities or organisations are engaged in similar research. Is there any mechanism than brings these researchers together to help optimally utilise the resource and time?

SAR:  This is a very important point of concern for the science policymakers, science fund managers and academic administrators. We need to optimise the use of scientific infrastructure and limited financial resources to efficiently achieve the research objectives through the formulation of networks and consortia among the universities involving researchers.

For example, I must tell you that currently a number of research are being conducted on GI cancers at various institutes/universities across Kashmir. It is very important that all the researchers should join hands to form a consortium for better networking that will help us to pool the human intellect, and scientific infrastructure for optimal utilisation of the resources, which have been generated out of the taxpayers’ money. The same is the case with other pressing societal concerns such as pollution, resource depletion, horticulture etc. that would require the pooling of human and financial resources. All the government, non-government, academic institutes and civil societies must cooperate to optimally make use of the limited resources. The consortia of these institutions will help us reach the solutions in the shortest span of time.

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